One of the most influential modern show jumpers, McLain Ward is an equestrian phenom. He has left little to prove in the arena, winning gold medals at the Olympics, the Pan American Games and World Equestrian Games, topping the FEI Jumping World Cup Finals and ranking No. 1 in the world. With all of his experience, few riders are more coveted to have on your team, especially in extreme pressure situations. Wearing the pinque coat as a representative of the United States Equestrian Team comes with high expectations, and Ward prevails as a true ambassador for the sport and the face of American show jumping.
Left, McLain married his wife Lauren in 2008. The equestrian power couple are proud parents to daughters Lilly (8) and Madison (3). Middle, McLain rode Clinta to anchor the gold medal-winning U.S. Show Jumping Team at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina.
Ward’s family tree has deep equestrian roots from his parents, both professionals in the horse industry. His mother, Kristine, a horse trainer originally from California, headed to the East Coast to try out horses — and never returned to San Francisco. ‘Kris’ met and married Barney Ward and remained in New York. She rode competitively in the hunters and became a top trainer, known for teaching children and ponies as well as having a wonderful sense of humor. Ward’s parents separated early in his childhood, and a young Mc- Lain stayed with his mom while his dad was away competing throughout the United States and abroad. Horses were an omnipresence on the family farm, and, with encouragement from his parents, the boy was introduced to riding before he could walk. He credits his mom’s impact on his early riding. “My first teacher was my mother,” he remembers. “I always say that my position is definitely a signature part of my riding. That comes from her.”
Ward’s father, a Grand Prix rider and fierce competitor, contributed greatly to another signature characteristic: ambition. “I think I got the horse bug, probably more than anything, because I wanted to spend time with my dad. Riding was going to be the probable avenue to do that.” His father is the founder of Castle Hill Farm in Brewster, New York, which Ward still owns and trains out of today. The direct influence of his parents is felt to this day by the way the farm is managed, the organizational style used and the Castle Hill lifestyle as “a real family- oriented venture.”
Both parents have passed but were incredibly influential in nurturing the titan that Ward has become. “The influence of my parents and the education that I received from them, we still use on the day-to-day basis, in our horsemanship and our routine, as well as in our way of running our stable, organizing our business and approaching the sport. It has their stamp all over it,” he says with deference.
The accolades of McLain Ward include some of the highest honors against the best riders and horses in the world.
High school basketball coach Tim Notke’s observation that “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” could have been Ward’s mantra in his initial riding endeavors. “My early years weren’t very good; I wasn’t very talented,” he recalls. “But luckily, in my teenage years, it came together a bit better.” In 1990, at age 14, he won the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Show Jumping Derby and Medal Finals — becoming the first and youngest rider to win both titles in the same year and earning him the nickname, “The Kid.” His career skyrocketed from there, competing in — and winning — Grand Prix show jumping classes throughout the U.S. and being chosen to represent his country around the world.
At his very core, Ward is a competitor. “I like to win,” he says simply. He enjoys competition and relates his need for the chase to a personal story. “A friend and I were swimming in the ocean in Miami on an off day at an event, and I kept trying to go a little farther than him to where we had gotten into kind of a dicey depth of water for my swimming level,” he reminiscences fondly. “Several months later, we were at breakfast, and that friend said, ‘I was really impressed with your swimming.’ McLain answered, ‘Well, I had to go a bit farther than you.’ ” For Ward, the fight for success is fulfilling and motivating.
The ups and downs and the triumph over challenges are motivating for the Olympic champion. Stressful? Definitely. But the satisfaction gained from hard-earned success is worth it. “When you pursue a competitive endeavor, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have some ego right? You have to have some ego to be this passionate.” He continues seriously, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve had some really bad days. I hope I can be remembered in a way that no matter what the mistake or the misstep was, tomorrow I fought harder to do it better and more correctly. And I hope that people find some inspiration in that.” The many challenges that he has faced have motivated him to be better as well as the people who support him and share the journey. Everyone on his team contributes and plays a role in the success they collectively earn.
HH Azur or “Annie” was McLain Ward’s partner at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil earning a silver medal in the show jumping team competition.
PHOTO BY SHANNON BRINKMAN
Aboard HH Azur, McLain Ward wins the Longines FEI World Cup Championship with zero penalties after five rounds of jumping, describing the victory as one of the most memorable moments in his career.
PHOTO BY SHANNON BRINKMAN
“They Are Right There On the Podium With Us”
A huge part of the success equation behind every top rider and their horses has to include a blacksmith and veterinary team. Incredibly, McLain Ward has used the same blacksmith and veterinarians throughout his entire career, with only some transitioning as the veterinarians have gotten older and reduced their travel. The greatness of the team relies on the coordinated efforts and knowledge of these crucial health care providers to create the best athletic conditions for the horses, preventively and therapeutically, as well as post-competition and in long-term care. “These professional teams are not 9 to 5; they are 24/7. They are dedicated plus, and a huge part of the success we are able to have in the arena,” McLain emphasizes. “And they are right there on the podium with us when it all comes together.”
Castle Hill Farm, Ward’s immaculate equestrian facility and home base, is tucked into the stunning countryside of southeastern New York. The dairy farm turned show jumping operation is manicured to the hilt yet undoubtedly exudes a warm, historical, family-oriented atmosphere. When Ward’s dad started the business, he surrounded himself with people he could rely on, trust and turn to. He hired young people; many coming from challenging backgrounds — as he had. “My father found great pleasure in providing stability for people. He gave them confidence and brought them into the fold where they really felt they had value. I think that’s something he looked for in his life,” Ward says. “We’ve tried to continue that.” Many wonderful people have been touched by the Ward family and Castle Hill Farm that also operates out of Wellington, Florida. Generations of people have since become part of this extended family, whether for a few years or for decades, and the opportunity to be a part of the upper echelon of the sport. They learn how to care for some of the best equine athletes and continue a personal education through hard work and responsibility. The Castle Hill community provides unique support for individual goals and pursuits.
To remain at the elite level of competition takes a village of dedicated, organized specialists behind the scenes. Lee McKeever is a colossal influence on the entire operation. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, McKeever was welcomed into the Castle Hill family by Ward’s father in 1988 and has since played a pivotal role in every step of the equestrian’s professional career. Ward readily refers to McKeever as a “genius.” At their level of competition, the intensity is arduous with long hours blending into endless days and countless personal sacrifices along the way. A lifestyle more than a job, McKeever shows up daily with the same dedication, grit and display of hard work that he showed when he first arrived. McKeever and Ward have worked side by side for over 30 years. “I wouldn’t be halfway where I am in my career without him. It’s a very special relationship,” Ward says. There is unquestionable stress and pressure involved when you are at the very top of the sport. Expectations are high; the bar is continually set higher. Having grown up alongside Ward from a relatively young age, the two men have a good understanding of each other, mutual respect and a common goal: winning. McLain adamantly states, “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to try to be the best in the world at it.” The drive to be the best unites them.
McKeever’s family is also unwaveringly involved in making Castle Hill tick. Erica, McKeever’s wife, started working at Castle Hill within a month of her husband. She has literally “done it all” for the farm, grooming and riding, prepping for shows, hauling horses, driving tractors and so on. After starting a family, she settled into the massive logistics role as manager of the New York farm, overseeing over 30 horses and scheduling farriers and veterinarians, coordinating exercise schedules, tending to horses coming home from shows, and organizing those about to leave on the next trailer. The McKeevers have two children. Daughter Baylee fell in love with the horses early, showing and winning consistently in the hunter, jumper and equitation rings, and the 19-yearold is competing on Auburn University’s equestrian team.
In 2008, McLain married his wife, Lauren, who is also heavily involved with the family business. Lauren is an amateur rider and lifelong horse lover. The equestrian power couple are proud parents of daughters, 8-year-old Lilly and Madison, 3, who are both passionate for horses. “My wife is a unicorn, and we have two incredible daughters,” Ward says. Born into royal equestrian lineage, the couple is excited to see what is in store for their budding equestrians, with Lilly already deeply involved in the show world.
“(Lee) knows the horses better than anybody. He knows how to have their conditioning, their health, how to prevent as well as deal with injuries. There’s never been a moment when I doubted that my horses were in anything but the best of care and had the best preparation to compete.”
— McLain Ward, 4-Time Olympic Medalist in Show Jumping
Lee McKeever, who McLain Ward refers to as a “genius,” has worked at Castle Hill for over 30 years.
PHOTO BY ELIZABETH HAY PHOTOGRAPHY
There are many talented riders, so what is it that makes Ward so good? It’s all in the details. “We try not to leave a stone unturned,” he says honestly. For the Castle Hill program, this attention to details started at the very beginning. From there, it has been years and years of working at their craft, refining and fine-tuning to not just be competitive — but to be the best in the world. Ward and his trusted team surround themselves and engage with peers that are just as serious as they are. They learn from others and accept advice. Nothing is taken for granted, no shortcuts from horse care to scheduling to training and everything in between. “The whole equation is tied together with a very talented horse,” he says. It is not an overnight result, it has taken years, even decades of work, of being tired and grinding out results. It is the attention to the smallest details that, when added together, contribute to the big things.
The evolution of the sport hinges on many small, individual elements to maintain this competitive standard. A rider needs to be fit — physically, often with adjunct personal training, and mentally, with elite athletes devoting time to sports psychology. For the horse, veterinarians keep the equine athletes in peak physical condition, best possible health and soundest state to perform at the highest levels. As any horse person knows, “no hoof, no horse,” and farriers work tirelessly to ensure each equine foot is prepared to handle the galloping, turning and immense jumping efforts required on varying terrain. Therapeutic work with physios and after care are a big part of the equation as well, to help the horse stay relaxed, recover from tremendous athletic efforts and the stresses of travel. Nutrition and supplementation provide the energy necessary for their intense workload, as well as nutrients to support hard-working joints and muscle recovery. The horse must feel his best from the inside out. Ward has used Platinum Performance® in his program since 2003. “Platinum is a product that’s based on great science. Our veterinarians have great confidence, not only in the short-term performance but also for the long-term health of the horses. I think that’s very important. It’s not just about our results in the sport. It’s how do these products affect the overall well-being of the horses’ health longterm.” He continues, “Platinum is a product that’s very near and dear to our heart. It is great for the horses’ overall health, as well as their performance.”
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“Platinum is a product that’s based on great science. Our veterinarians have great confidence, not only in the short-term performance but also for the long-term health of the horses. I think that’s very important. It’s not just about our results in the sport, it’s how do these products affect the overall well-being of the horses’ health long-term. Platinum is a product that’s very near and dear to our heart. It is great for the horses’ overall health, as well as their performance.”
— McLain Ward, 4-Time Olympic Medalist in Show Jumping and Platinum Client Since 2003
Equestrian sport would not be possible without horses, and Ward has partnered with some of the best equine athletes of the 21st century. His history of past and current mounts reads like a Who’s Who of American show jumping. Orchestre was one of the first great horses to put Ward on the map in the 1990s. Add to that the against-the-odds story of Rothchild, who he piloted in the World Cup Finals, Pan American Games and World Equestrian Games in 2014 and 2015. Contagious, another true champion, achieved Olympic success, winning the silver medal with Ward at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Fascinatingly, in a relatively male dominated sport, some of Ward’s winningest partners are female. “I’m drawn to the mares. I like their personality quirks. I appreciate their sensitivity and their strength of character,” he says. Sapphire, Clinta and HH Azur are three of his magnificent albeit very individual mare competitors.
And there are many, many more. Each horse that he rides is incredibly athletic, careful and fast, and Ward has an otherworldly ability to bring out the very best in each horse. To say he can ride, is like saying Aretha could sing. Like any master of their craft, anyone can enjoy watching him compete, from pony riders to peers, and all horse enthusiasts in between. Everyone can appreciate the art in motion of horse and rider. Ward is quick to credit the magnificent animal that has made his entire career — and life. “Without the horse, none of this would be possible. They give us so much, and they only ask for basic kindness in return,” he says. “I believe horses and humans have a connection that draws us to each other. I believe in their own way, they know we need them, and they are pleased to be our partner, whether it be in work or sport. We need to remember to never take this privilege for granted. We are the shepherds of the animal. We have the responsibility to the animal to pass on to the next generation. To never lose our appreciation for what they have given us throughout history of time and to be sure that their relevance in our society does not fade away. This is our greatest responsibility as equestrians.”
Sapphire partnered with McLain Ward to win many show jumping accolades, including a pair of gold medals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. PHOTO BY SHANNON BRINKMAN
The Belgian Warmblood mare nicknamed Sara that carried Ward to two Olympic team gold medals, team silver at the World Equestrian Games and many individual accolades at some of the world’s most prestigious events.
“Sara was a very steady-headed, very predictable horse that you could count on in the biggest pressure situations,” he says. “She defied her type to some degree. She was a bit of a big, heavy horse, but she had blood.”
An Oldenburg mare with a tremendous jump that partnered with Ward to anchor the gold medal-winning U.S. team at the 2018 World Equestrian Games.
“Clinta was probably the most talented horse I’ve ever ridden,” he says. “Her jump was absolutely spectacular ... so spectacular, she just physically struggled to hold up to that. But we’re breeding her; she has babies now, and we're looking forward to them.”
‘Annie’ is a Belgian Warmblood that Ward refers to as “The Queen.” This brilliant mare has been one of the best horses in the world for almost a decade. She won the silver medal in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro and won the World Cup Finals in 2017. After sustaining a few small injuries and taking time off, she made an incredible comeback proving that she was not ready to relinquish the crown. She was recently retired after an exciting run for the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping winning both CHI Geneva and The Dutch Masters.
“She has been basically the best horse, or one of the two or three best horses in the world over the last two seasons,” Ward says. “She’s probably going to go down in history as one of the best, if not the best, horse ever. She’s certainly the winningest horse ever. She’s just incredibly intelligent; she understands the game.”
“Without the horse, none of this would be possible. They give us so much, and they only ask for basic kindness in return. I believe horses and humans have a connection that draws us to each other. I believe, in their own way, they know we need them, and they are pleased to be our partner, whether it be in work or sport.”
— McLain Ward, 4-Time Olympic Medalist in Show Jumping
Ward has already staked his claim as one of the winningest show jumpers in American history. With that celebrity status, all eyes are on him when he steps into the ring. As has been said, “heavy lies the crown,” but as a role model, the New Yorker seamlessly braids his ego and self-confidence with humility. Ward is always well spoken, dignified and searches to give credit elsewhere. He has a way of speaking formally, like he’s from a bygone era of horsemen. When interviewed, he immediately recognizes his horses, the tireless team that backs them up and a supportive family. He is quick to commend course designers and show management. He allows his riding to make the headlines based on his remarkable skill and work ethic.
Ward will say that riding is his calling and his true passion. And with this incredible passion comes its share of difficulties and certain challenges, but he is quick to point out: It’s been a wonderful journey. “I would be lying if I said it doesn’t take something from you. Choosing to do a sport for a living. Choosing to basically be judged every day in competition. Being under that level of pressure for years and decades, it can be stressful. It can be challenging.” He continues thoughtfully, “But this sport has given me everything — the horses, the competition, the pursuit of excellence has created a beautiful life. I’m very grateful for it.”